When Hope Seems Silly

The life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer. ~Martha Nussbaum

This summer of 2016 has been a summer of tragedy. Many are mentioning the summer of 1968 as the last time so much bad news crowded a season. That rings true for me as I think back across the years. Again I hear talk of hope and prayer and of solutions. To me, these sound like silly answers.

I was ten years old in 1968, attending a Pentecostal church in that awful summer. For us, the hopes and prayers and solutions were all about Jesus and the next world, not about this Satan-inspired mess. As a Christian, I had a miraculous out—the god in the machine would sweep in and pluck me from the burning world.

Thinking back, looking around that auditorium in my mind’s eye a lifetime later, I see the poor, the working class, black and white gathered. There would never be any real hope for us; there would be no solutions for most of us. I was one of the very lucky and very few. Most died in their hopeless hope listening to the empty words of preachers and politicians. Neither religion nor politics offered true hope.

I have gotten over my otherworldly fundamentalism but now live among people who believe desperately in political solutions. My life has taught me that hope is often delusion, prayers are illusion, and solutions seldom solve anything.

The belief in universals such as heaven and progress are fine for those with safety nets, except for the unfortunate consequence that these ideas have infantilized our politics and are destroying our planet. Big solutions are no solutions at all.

For those working without a net, seeing the truth helps in navigation. Therein is the beginning of true hope—knowing that there is only the burning world. I have spent my life attempting to help those interested in getting out of the delusion that there is anything else.

My Humanism teaches me that reaching out and forming relationships is enough. Openness to the world and its pain and pleasures is enough. Humanity will pull through, but none of the chimeras—from religions to politics—offer realistic paths. As Confucius taught, hope begins in relationship and builds to that larger communal goal. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it this way:

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

This is hope we actually have, that we can grasp, and that we can share with others authentically and with integrity.

That’s what I’ve seen across these years of my life: The good we do is so seldom wrapped up in grand projects and so often lives in the opportunity to listen to one another.

To live in this burning world we must trust in the uncertain and stand willing to be exposed. We must share in the knowledge that we are all like plants, not like jewels, fragile but beautiful.

That’s hope. That’s certainty.

No, we haven’t got a prayer. And solutions come and go. The news and the promises drone on. Compassion is what remains. Life itself—being here now—is all anyone has ever had or ever will. It is enough. Our task is to remember. IMG_1788

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About David Breeden

The Rev. Dr. David Breeden is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He became a minister after a career as a university professor, teaching creative writing and literature. He has written several books on theological topics and translates the writings of philosophers of classical antiquity. More information is available at www.wayofoneness.com.